John Locke and Algernon Sidney: A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
Two thinkers who had a significant influence on founding-era Americans and the principle of civil liberty were Enlightenment-era philosophers John Locke and Algernon Sidney. These philosophers articulated from the Bible and Bible-based writings the secularized principles of equality and popular sovereignty or the people’s rule, concepts asserted in the U. S. Declaration of Independence.
The principle of popular sovereignty—or the idea that since all men are equal, earthly political power resides with the whole people—was found in the Bible-based writings of medieval churchmen including Thomas Aquinas, Robert Bellarmine, and Francisco Suarez. It was also found in the reformed political writings of John Ponet in his 1556 Short Treatise on Political Power, Stephen Junius Brutus in his 1579 Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, Richard Hooker in his 1593 Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and Samuel Rutherford in his 1644 Lex Rex. It was asserted in a 1638 court sermon by Puritan Thomas Hooker in the colony of Connecticut.
British Philosopher John Locke took up the torch of popular sovereignty in his 1689 Two Treatises of Civil Government which played a significant role in the development of American political thought during the American Founding era. In his treatises, Locke asserted secularized republican principles as derived from the Bible and consistent with historical Bible-oriented writers. In his First Treatise of Civil Government, Locke refuted the widely-held doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings and absolute monarchy supported by political theorist and King James I’s court theologian Robert Filmer. Filmer wrote the 1680 Patriarcha. Locke instead asserted the equality of all men and popular sovereignty in line with Bellarmine and others of like-mind.
In his First Treatise, Locke argued that no civil rank or power pre-exists among human beings, in which one person is naturally over or under the authority of another. Specifically, he refuted Filmer’s assertion that the first man Adam in Genesis was the first king and that the king of England was a direct heir of Adam. Locke countered that when God created mankind in Genesis, God did not make Adam or any one person superior to others simply by inheritance or succession. Rather, human beings were naturally created and exist as equal. As a result, they are naturally free. Therefore, the proper state of mankind in society is one of equality and freedom among men. Locke observes, …
If Creation, which gave nothing but a being, “made” not Adam “prince of his posterity,” if Adam (Genesis 1:28) was not constituted lord of mankind, nor had a “private dominion” given him…but only a right and power over the earth and inferior creatures, in common with the children of men; …if all this be so, as I think, by what has been said, is very evident, then man has a “natural freedom”…since all that share in the same common nature, faculties, and powers are in nature equal, and ought to partake in the same common rights and privileges, till the manifest appointment of God who is “Lord overall, blessed forever,” can be produced to show any particular person’s supremacy, or a man’s own consent subjects him to a superior.
Drawing from the Bible, Locke recognized that human beings’ equality before God in creation and in a state of nature led to every man’s equal right to freedom—“that equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.” Locke spoke of the natural state of mankind before civil society as being “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature….” As free, men may willingly submit themselves to another authority by their own and the people’s consent.
Algernon Sidney was an English parliamentarian and political philosopher of the late 1600s who also defended popular sovereignty and became influential to founding-era Americans. Sidney was a member of the Whig party—the pro-reform political party in England that stood against the Divine Right of Kings and absolute rule and in favor of natural rights and popular sovereignty. He, like Locke, believed the Bible and the Law of Nature and God supported the latter principles. Sidney defended popular sovereignty in his well-known 1698 essay, Discourses Concerning Government, in which he extensively cited the Bible as well as Bellarmine and Suarez. His Discourses became well-known in America as a “textbook of revolution” during the American Revolution.
In his Discourses, Sidney defended God as the source of the equality of all men, civil power, and the rule of the people. Refuting Filmer’s reasoning for Divine Right of Kings, Sidney acknowledged the Italian Jesuit Bellarmine’s reference to God’s creation in Genesis in order to support popular sovereignty. Filmer and Sidney cited Bellarmine’s De Laicis or Of the Laity, sometimes called Bellarmine’s Treatise on Civil Government, which originally appeared in Book III of Bellarmine’s 1596 Disputationes de Controversiis Christianae Fidei. Sidney writes, …
He [Filmer] recites an argument of Bellarmine, that “it is evident in Scripture God hath ordained powers; but God hath given them to no particular person, because by nature all men are equal. Therefore, He [God] hath given power to the people or multitude.” I leave him [Filmer] to untie that knot, if he can…. I take Bellarmine’s argument to be strong…. I may justly insist upon it…. It is hard to imagine that God, who hath left all things to our choice, that are not evil in themselves, …should impose upon us a necessity of following His will without declaring it to us. Instead of constituting a government over His people, consisting of many parts, which we take to be a model fit to be imitated by others, He might have declared a word, that the eldest man of the eldest line should be king and that his [the king’s] will ought to be their law. … We see nothing in scripture, of precept or example, that is not utterly abhorrent to this chimera. The only sort of kings mentioned there with approbation is such a one “as may not raise his heart above his brethren [Deuteronomy 17].” If God had constituted a lord paramount with an absolute power, and multitudes of nations were to labour and fight for his greatness and pleasure, this were to raise his [the king’s] heart to a height that would make him forget he was a man. Such as are versed in scripture not only know that it neither agrees with the letter or spirit of that book but that it is unreasonable in itself.
God in the Bible did not assign absolute rulers as superiors over men, Sidney observed, but gave political power and choice of governors and government to the people who are all equal in position.
The American Founders aligned with Locke and Sidney’s Bible-based views of equality among men and popular sovereignty. They upheld the view that since all men are created equal by God, all men are naturally equal and free. As such, just governments must have the people’s consent.
For example, Founder, physician, and politician Benjamin Rush referred to the Bible as the source of equality among men. In his 17998 essay, Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, he affirms,
A Christian cannot fail of being a republican. The history of the creation of man, and of the relation of our species to each other by birth, which is recorded in the Old Testament is the best refutation that can be given to the divine right of kings, and the strongest argument that can be used in favor of the original and natural equality of all mankind.
Founder and law professor James Wilson also recognized man’s equality and freedom in a state of nature, expressing in his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law, “As in civil society, previous to civil government, all men are equal. So, in the same state, all men are free. In such a state, no one can claim, in preference to another, superior right. In the same state, no one can claim over another superior authority.” In his 1793 court decision Chisholm vs. Georgia, he further asserted equality and popular sovereignty by consent of the governed: “Laws derived from the pure source of equality and justice must be founded on the CONSENT of those, whose obedience they require. The sovereign, when traced to his source, must be found in the man.”
Founder and primary author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson affirmed the equality of men in nature in a 1826 letter to Roger Weightman: “All eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, or a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”
Jefferson, in fact, cited Locke and Sidney as some of his direct sources in writing the Declaration. In a 1825 letter to Henry Lee, he explained that the Declaration’s authority rests on “the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” In a 1825 Report to the President and Directors of the Literary Fund at the University of Virginia, he later reaffirmed that “as to the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and in society, the doctrines of Locke…and of Sidney…may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of…the United States.”
Founding-era Americans defended their authority and right to form a new, self-governing nation and a constitutional government by “We the People” based on the principles of equality and popular sovereignty. The American Founders looked to Locke and Sidney’s explanations of these principles—drawn and defended from the Bible and Bible-oriented thinkers—in order to justify the American Revolution and to write the U. S. Declaration of Independence. Sidney, points out Donald Lutz in his 1988 Origins of American Constitutionalism, “combines reason and [Biblical] revelation in his analysis, and thus shows how easily the Declaration can be an expression of earlier, biblically based American constitutional thought.” The American Founders expressed the principles of equality and popular sovereignty in the Declaration in stating that “all men are created equal” and that “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.
Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E. The Miracle of America: The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief. Second Edition. Houston, TX: American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.
1. The Principle of Popular Sovereignty: Consent of the Governed
2. How Religious Reformers Defended Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
3. How Catholic Churchmen Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
4. How Reformed Political Thinkers Defended Popular Sovereignty From the Bible
5. Why Puritan Thomas Hooker Favored Democracy over Aristocracy
6. Why the Puritans Elected Representatives to Govern in their American Colonies
7. Great Awakening Principle: The Dignity of the Human Being
8. Great Awakening Principle: All Men Equal Before God
9. How the Great Awakening Affected Society: Education, Missions, Humanitarianism, Women, Gospel
10. How the Great Awakening Impacted American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution
11. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense: God’s Opposition to Absolute Monarchy
12. The American Revolution
13. American Revolution Debate: The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
14. The American Quest for Self-Government
15. The Creator God: The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
16. Self-Evident Truth: Equality and Rights in the Declaration of Independence
17. The Law of Nature: The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
Poster: Declaration of Independence
Activity: The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 4: Principles of the Declaration of Independence, p. 252, 362-365. MS-HS.
Principles of the Declaration of Independence…. (may be continued from part 1 of this unit)
Purpose/Objective: Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Popular Sovereignty, Unalienable Rights, and Social Contract, and how historical, influential thinkers and early Americans connected these concepts with the Bible.
1) Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text. Students read sections 7.1-7.20, 7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout: Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3) “Historical Figures Quoted in Miracle of America” and “References to the Law of Nature and Natural Rights in Miracle of America” in “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 347-348, 360-61, 366-371.
4) Related blogs/videos (see above).
Reading and Questions:
Have students read the “Principles of the Declaration of Independence” handout and, as desired, relevant articles on The Founding Blog and relevant sections in Miracle of America text as indicated on the handout. (The Miracle book is dense, high-level reading, so if you wish to have students read directly from the book, assign specific sections and then analyze and discuss the reading together as a class. You may wish to project some text on-screen. Answer questions, clarify vocabulary, and fill in other information as needed. The text analysis will help students grasp the terms and concepts, and it is great practice for having students read historical text and excerpts.) After the reading, have students write answers to the questions that follow on the handout. Discuss. This reading or portions of this reading may be done in either the first or second part of this unit as the teacher finds appropriate. Review questions are also found in Chapter 7 of the Miracle of America text, p. 240.
To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org. To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.
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